Failing U.S. health care system is ‘Sicko’

[30 June 2007]

By Kai Wright

Our elected officials should go see Michael Moore’s latest film, Sicko.

Moore’s documentary opens with a series of compelling patient profiles. There’s a middle-age couple made homeless by medical bills, and a carpenter forced to choose one of two severed fingers to reattach, since he can’t afford surgery for both.

The film also shows hospitals dumping patients on skid row. And it tells the story of a woman whose toddler dies when a hospital refuses to treat her because the mom’s insurance isn’t valid there.

Sicko is likely to reinforce the concerns most Americans have over health care.

In a Kaiser Family Foundation poll this spring, voters identified health care as the second most important issue facing government, behind Iraq. More than half of respondents said they wanted presidential candidates to offer plans for universal health care coverage and to pledge a “substantial increase in spending” on the problem.

But no major presidential candidate has proposed ditching the market-based system and its titanic failures—more than $2 trillion a year spent to rank at the bottom of industrialized nations on a disturbing array of health indicators while leaving more than 43 million people without coverage at all.

All of the leading Democratic candidates have reform proposals that allow the insurance industry to remain a costly and untrustworthy middleman between patients and doctors. None of the leading Republicans has bothered to chime in thus far.

Nor do the leading candidates address the myriad of other excesses of our market-based system: patients cajoled into unnecessary surgeries and drugs; cities crammed with expensive specialty hospitals and clinics, while community hospitals go belly up and basic, preventive care grows scarce; the pharmaceutical market flooded with pricey lifestyle drugs.

The reality is that making health care a commodity rather than a public good has not worked.

Today’s publicly run Veterans Affairs system provides better health outcomes for its patients than private health plans. That’s because the VA is freed from worrying about maximizing profits and can concentrate on the long-term heath of its patients.

What’s more, our supposedly private health system’s failures are actually already publicly financed. Add employers’ tax deductions for health insurance to the price of Medicare and other public programs, and it turns out the public contribution covered roughly 60 percent of health costs in 2004.

But such realities get lost in Washington’s upside-down world, where in 2005 drug makers had spent $800 million over the previous seven years on federal lobbying and campaign contributions.

Americans are fed up with this status quo. Moore’s film articulates that growing frustration. Now, it’s time for our elected leaders to start listening.


Kai Wright is editor of; he wrote this for Progressive Media Project, a source of liberal commentary on domestic and international issues; it is affiliated with The Progressive magazine.

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